Adventure on the Back River, Marilyn Sprissler

 The Back (Thlewechodyeth, or “Great Fish River”) is a very challenging & long river, about 1100 km.


Adventure on the Back River, Nunavut: 2006, July 5 – Aug. 16 by Marilyn Sprissler
After nearly a year of planning logistics, reading books, figuring out meals & equipment, dehydrating food, deciding on boats, payloads etc. etc. etc. we were finally ready to head to Yellowknife to begin our trip on the Back River. We planned to fly in & start about 50 km. downstream from the uppermost point, in order to avoid a lot of rocks & dragging & the finish point was to be just upriver of Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic Ocean. We decided from the beginning that Pakboats would be the ideal boat to travel in because at Chantrey Inlet, the only plane that could pick us up & fly us to Baker Lake (the nearest & therefore cheapest town to fly to) could not carry even a 16′ canoe, let alone 17′ hardshell canoes.
We paddled the river in 2 parts – Upper & Lower. For the Upper we had 8 people & 4 boats (two 17′ Pakboats, one 16’6″ Pakboat & one 17′ rented hardshell), & 4 paddlers finished at Mission Island, the halfway point, & flew back to Yellowknife. Only the two 17′ Pakboats continued on to do the entire river. We all used sprayskirts – two from Pakboats, one rented & one adapted from another canoe.
From comments we heard from paddlers who had done the river at much lower levels & were able to paddle some of the more difficult rapids & from the trip report that we were following, we realized that we were paddling the river under quite high conditions. As usual, this changed the character of many of the rapids……it washed out some rapids, turned many so-called riffles into massive, long wave trains that were quite intimidating & made a couple of long difficult rapids completely unpaddleable. The Pakboats handled amazingly well in large waves coming from all directions….the bow rose up, canoes stayed quite dry & they were very stable. In coming down ledges, they tended to not submarine.
In addition, there are a lot of massive flat sandbars in some areas of the Back, that showed as land on our maps, but they were all flooded out because of the high water – this made navigating quite tricky, since they weren’t quite deep enough to paddle straight over – that meant finding a slightly deeper passage by the colour of the water & zig-zagging all over the place trying to find the channels & not end up in a dead end. This added many extra miles to our paddling, since there were no direct routes.
Foolishly, we believed the trip report that we were following & sent home our portage yokes at the halfway point, thinking we wouldn’t need them anymore. As it turned out, we were forced to do several portages (without our yokes!) because of the water levels. We did improvise & managed, regretting all the while the fact we had sent home the yokes.
Again, probably because of exceptionally high water, we hit many sections (most unmarked) with very large whirlpools & boils – again on our report that we were following, most of them were marked “riffle”. Some of these were about a foot high/deep with a diameter as wide as our boat was long. Again our PakCanoes performed admirably & remained quite stable.
We could not have asked for more as far as scenery, wildflowers & wildlife are concerned. We saw so many wolves that we stopped mentioning them to our paddling partners; there were groups of caribou almost ever day – and on the Lower half we saw a huge herd of about 4-5000 caribou. Wildflowers grew in profusion almost everywhere; we spotted many herds of muskox, all 4 kinds of loons, several kinds of geese, countless kinds of birds. The trip was completely above treeline – there were endless miles of eskers and sand dunes, so many dunes & beautiful beaches that it often looked tropical.
We had the good fortune of having the first of the ‘new’ PakCanoes, built in China – they have such wonderful added features as 5 keelstrips, which we tested with the harshest of treatment. We hauled those 2 boats fully loaded over countless rocks during miles of lining. The bottoms are, in spite of this mistreatment, still in excellent condition. My boat was continually squeezed & pulled & pushed between rocks, abrading the sides finally to the point of leaking. I used the little patch kit that comes with the boat & voila!, no more leaking. In addition, we had locking clips along the gunnels – we lifted the boats loaded many times & had no problems at all.
Two boats also experimented with the seats, trying out alternatives to the original PakCanoe seats, using a more traditional style seat. These also worked very well, although a couple additional improvements are being planned for 2006!

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